Economic straight thinking

Posted: Dec 03, 2003 12:00 AM

A fortnight ago, I wrote "Harm's a Two-Way Street," a column that generated considerable reader response, some of it angry and nasty. The gist of the column was that the liberty-oriented solution to the smoking controversy was through the institution of private property, where the owner of a workplace, restaurant or bar decides whether there would be smoking or not. The totalitarian solution was to use the brute force of government.

I argued that harm is a two-way street. Tobacco fumes might harm someone who is allergic or just finds the odor offensive. The person who smokes and is not permitted to do so is also harmed by being denied a pleasurable experience. Quite a few letters asserted, "Williams, you can't compare the health harm to a nonsmoker to the inconvenience harm that a smoker suffers just because he's not allowed to smoke." No, I can't and wouldn't even try. Why?

Using economic jargon, it is impossible to make interpersonal utility comparisons. Let's try a few. A dollar will bring me more happiness than it will bring you. It's better to like opera music than hip-hop music. Human life is more important than money. There's no objective way to prove any of these statements simply because there is no objective standard for comparison.

You might have an opinion, but an opinion is not proof. The same reasoning applies if you said, "The harm I suffer from your smoking is greater than the harm you suffer from not being permitted to smoke." Contrast these statements to: "You are taller than I." For such a statement there are indeed objective standards for falsifying or verifying it -- just get out the measuring instruments.

Another part of the column suggested that an owner of a restaurant, workplace or bar might post a sign indicating whether he permitted smoking or not. After all, private property rights have to do with rights held by an owner to keep, acquire and use property in ways he pleases so long as he doesn't interfere with similar rights held by another. Private property rights also include the right to exclude others from use of property.

Quite a few readers asked, "What if the owner wished to exclude blacks or some other race?" I value freedom of association. An important part of the right of association is the right not to associate for a good reason, bad reason or no reason at all. That's not to say that I don't find some forms of association offensive. But the true test of one's commitment to freedom of association doesn't come when he allows others to associate in ways he deems desirable. The true test of his commitment comes when he is willing to allow others to associate in ways he deems offensive.

One might be tempted to think that if owners were free to reject customers by race, segregation would be widespread. But that's nonsense because there's a difference between what people can do and what they'll find in their interests to do.

Think about it. During the United States' Jim Crow era and South Africa's apartheid era, there was an elaborate legal structure mandating and enforcing racial segregation. Whenever you see a law on the books, your best guess is that the law is on the books because not everyone left to their own devices would behave according to the specifications of the law. After all, why would there be a need for a law saying bars or theaters cannot admit blacks if no white bar or theater owner would admit blacks in the first place?

There're a lot of things we can disagree about, but let's have straight thinking as a part of the process.